Book #20

Flush by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf's delightful biography of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning's spaniel, which asks what it means to be human - and to be dog.

Elizabeth Barrett was a Victorian poet with a gorgeous little cocker spaniel called Flush. I was curious about Woolf’s decision to write his biography, and found this gorgeous quote from one of her letters to Lady Ottoline Morrell: ‘I was so tired after the Waves, that I lay in the garden and read the Browning love letters, and the figure of their dog made me laugh so I couldn’t resist making him a Life’.. I mean, that’s as good a reason as any.

Flush is a city dog, raised in the streets of London where all dogs must be kept on chains. He learns of aristocracy (even amongst dogs), and becomes very intuitive to human emotion. He adopts a beautiful synchronicity with his mistress, and absorbs her moods as his own. Woolf does well to characterise him as an almost-human, feeding us his human-like feelings, and then describing his very dog-like motivations, such as grass under his paws, or the smells he finds glorious.

Woolf makes a lot of comments here on class. Flush is well-bred, with all the components required to be a dog of high-standing. He is originally quite vain and pompous, but slowly comes to realise through the biography that there is nothing much defining him from other, dirtier, or crossbred dogs.

It was a beautiful change to read of the life of a dog, and the life of humans through the eyes of a dog. Seeing his confusion and emotional changes when things happen which he couldn’t quite understand, made me think deeply about how we are seen by these gorgeous creatures.